Even the most seasoned food lovers in Brooklyn may never have had the chance to dine on “the helmeted cock,” a dish served last week at Williamsburg’s Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). While decadent and unusual enough to deserve a place on any modern restaurant’s menu, this 12th-century dish owes its recent revival to a partnership between MOFAD and the Brooklyn-based supper club Edible History. The brainchild of historian Victoria Flexner and chef Jay Reifel, Edible History seeks to bring “the past to life through food and drink” and Flexner and Reifel certainly lived up to their mission when they served the aforementioned dish, as well as three other delicious courses recovered from the annals of culinary history, at their two-night series Feminist Food, Feminist Art.
A part of MOFAD’s longer series Dinners of the Past, the second feast in Edible History’s residency at the Museum drew inspiration from visual artist Judy Chicago’s now-iconic installation The Dinner Party, which is on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum. Chicago’s piece, if you haven’t seen it, constitutes a massive, triangular table with individualized place settings for 39 historical and mythical women from across Western civilization.
To prepare for Feminist Food, Feminist Art, Flexner and Reifels scoured cookbooks written during the eras in which Chicago’s dinner guests lived, ultimately settling on four women and four corresponding time periods with sufficient culinary documentation to serve as the inspiration for their meal. The result was a unique treat for us modern dinner guests: honey wine, blood sausage and oysters from the fifth century BC, when Greek poet Sappho resided on the island of Lesbos; stuffed capon from the 14th-century lifetime of French author Christine de Pisan; helmeted cock and armored turnips from the 12th century, during which Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled as queen of England and France; and a trio of desserts popular when 19th-century abolitionist heroine Sojourner Truth fought for women’s suffrage.
The often surprising flavors, like the verjus and saffron-spiced kick of the capon, and the even more startling appearances of Reifel’s dishes—“the helmeted cock” was faithful to its name: a chicken in a helmet, armed for a joust and riding a suckling pig—were contextualized by Flexner’s expertly crafted narratives of the four feminists’ lives. As each course emerged from the kitchen, Flexner shared choice anecdotes from the women’s remarkable stories, which had us guests in awe, laughing and at times scandalized, particularly by the bawdy one-liners of some of history’s most famous players.
As we feasted on the Gruyère- and sugar-roasted turnips, we learned that when Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband King Louis XII’s union faltered, the pope served as their marriage counselor, locking them in a bedroom and urging them to “make good use of the bed.” Later in the evening, Flexner honored Sojourner Truth’s courageous act of literally walking away from slavery, and then, appropriately, it felt, for the dessert course, lightened the mood by recounting one of Truth’s signature witty quips. When John Harvey Kellogg, serving as Truth’s doctor at the end of her life, asked Truth how old she was, she responded, “Why would I tell you my age? That would spoil my chances.”
Needless to say, we guests departed MOFAD at the end of the evening assured that despite any efforts to not include feminists on the historical record, women have always called out to us from the past with a joke, an insurrection or two and a demand to sit at the table.